October 5, 2002
1026 IST

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Mohammed Azmath waits for ordeal to end

Suleman Din in New York

Mohammed Azmath (36), once considered a prime suspect in the 9/11 attacks, and now awaiting deportation to India from the US, is 'terrified' of being forever perceived as a terrorist.

He also fears more punishment when he arrives in India. "He is terrified ... he worries he won't be able to get a job, have any friends, be able to live in any place," Steven Legon, his lawyer explained. "He is afraid people in India will hold it against him, think of him as a terrorist, that there will be this question forever hanging over his head."

Azmath spent over a year languishing in US jails, and was harshly abused by his captors, Legon said.

But since Azmath was eventually cleared and found to have no connection to terrorism, Legon said, the Indian government should treat his client leniently.

"Azmath is not a terrorist, and I know that because the US government did a thorough investigation," Legon said. "The US government does not release proven terrorists. [Checking out Azmath] they left no stone unturned."

Azmath and Syed Gul Mohammed Shah, natives of Hyderabad, were initially believed to be prime suspects in the 9/11 attacks after being arrested from a train in Texas on September 12, 2001, where authorities found box cutters, hair dye and several thousand dollars in their bags.

Eventually, explanations for the coincidences were verified, and Azmath was sentenced in a Manhattan court September 18 on charges of credit card fraud for a term of nine months. He was also ordered to pay $76,000 in restitution, which will become moot once he is deported.

Indian authorities, however, have spoken about charging the pair with concealing the truth and misrepresentation of facts because they both went to the US on fake passports, which could lead to a two-year sentence.

Legon said he has asked the US government to assure that Azmath will not undergo further punishment when he returns to India.

US Judge Shira Scheindlin, who ruled Azmath could go with time served, said her decision to let go Azmath early was out of consideration for his family in India. "The sooner he can get home, the more chance he has to save his family." Azmath's wife, who is a Pakistani, was facing deportation to her country, after the Indian government initially refused to renew her visa. Her visa was later extended.

Addressing the court, Azmath said he 'was singled out on train as a suspect of terrorism', and that the government 'labelled me ... damaged my life. I am unable [to be] normal again'.

Scheindlin noted in her ruling that Azmath has been 'over punished'. "There's no question that the 12 months he's been in custody in this country have been under unusually harsh conditions."

Legon said the US government's explanation for putting Azmath in solitary confinement was to protect him from other inmates, but he said there was no protection for Azmath from the guards.

Legon said that even after it was made clear that his client had no connection to terrorism, Azmath's prison guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY, continuously referred to him as 'the terrorist,' 'the bomber,' and 'the 9-11 guy.'

Aside from locking him outside in the cold, Legon said, Azmath was also not allowed to sleep, and once had a heavy iron prison door slammed on his foot.

Recounting a meeting with Azmath, Legon said his client was brought into the interview room shackled, manacled and handcuffed by four officers.

Two officers never left the room, Legon said, and video cameras were recording the proceedings. Azmath was never unbound, save for his handcuffs.

While they were discussing his sentencing, Azmath explained the abuses he had suffered. Legon said the guards listening in, apparently, were not happy. After the meeting got over, during their customary checking, the guards threw Azmath violently against a wall, patted him down hard and then took off his prison slippers, one by one. The slippers, which are made of paper and cardboard, were then slammed right by Azmath's face, to ensure there was nothing inside them.

Comparing Azmath to another former client of his, Ramzi Youssef, the terrorist who planned the 1993 truck bomb attack on the World Trade Centre, Legon said that Azmath received even worse treatment than him.

"The guards were unable to accept Azmath was anything but a terrorist," Legon said.

Legon said Azmath has shown interest in joining a civil suit against the US government, possibly with Shah, or joining a suit with other detainees.

He could have in fact fought the US government on the entire case, Legon said, because of the questionable methods authorities initially used to get evidence. The first 90 days, Legon said, Azmath was under secret interrogations, without a lawyer.

But Azmath chose not to challenge, Legon said, because it would have meant that he would have to remain in jail at least for another year.

Currently, Azmath is being held in Passaic County Jail in New Jersey, which is close to Newark airport. Legon expected his client to be flown out of there, on either a commercial flight, or possibly a military transport.

Azmath had been transferred from the custody of the US Bureau of Prisons to the Immigration and Naturalization Services in 24 hours, a process that usually takes two weeks.

Azmath's ordeal began on September 11, 2001. That morning, Azmath and Shah were on a San Antonio-bound plane that took off from Newark, but was grounded in St Louis. They transferred to a train, and pulled off on September 12 in Fort Worth, Texas, when authorities thought they acted suspiciously.

The two explained they had given up their jobs at a newsstand in Newark Penn Station to come to Texas and open up a fruit stand. Searching through their luggage, authorities found black hair dye, a knife, over $7,000 in cash and box-cutters. They then were arrested, and transferred to New York.

Investigations later revealed that the box cutters were used by them for their job at a newsstand, the dye was for vanity and the money was what they had saved to start a fruit stand.

Legon said, "He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong ethnic background, the wrong religion."

Azmath's Pakistani wife approaches court against deportation
Azmath's wife's plea for visa extension adjourned
Families clueless about charges against Hyderabadi duo in FBI custody
Families shocked at the arrest of Indian suspects
Indian duo no longer suspect in September 11 attacks
Indian suspect in FBI custody blessed with a son
FBI agents question Indian suspects in Hyderabad
US attacks: 2 men claiming to be Indians held
Indian suspects clean back home: Police
Cases in AP against Indians in FBI custody
FBI may deport Indian suspects
Kin of Indian suspects quizzed by FBI
Two Indians arrested after 9/11 attack charged with fraud
Indian charges US authorities with racial profiling

America's War on Terror: The Complete Coverage
The Attack on US Cities: The Complete Coverage

The Terrorism Weblog: Latest Stories from Around the World

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